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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 6, New Delhi, January 25, 2020 - Republic Day Special

Understanding Arab Spring: Interrogating the Role of Media and Diplomatic Communications

Monday 27 January 2020


by Bharti Chhibber

Arab Spring: Not Just A Mirage by Nilofar Suhrawardy; New Delhi: Gaurav Book Centre; 2019; pp. 167; Rs 825.

It has been nine years since the world witnessed one of the largest wave of democracy of the 21st Century in the form of Arab Spring. There were pro-democracy protests and uprisings against the authoritarian rules across the Middle East and North Africa starting from 2010 with the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. It was followed by uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria in 2011. Although the protestors in different states demanding political and economic reforms faced violent crackdowns by respective security agencies, the Arab Spring movement had a ripple effect across the Middle East and North Africa. In some states like Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Oman, ruling authorities proposed popular measures to pre-empt protests in their respective countries. However, Arab Spring did not culminate in very fruitful power transitions and today has given way to Arab Winter which highlights people’s discontent with current regimes and continuing struggle for just and productive governance.

The Arab Spring has been much talked and written about. Highlighting a different dimension, the book under review Arab Spring: Not Just A Mirage written by Nilofar Suhrawardy and published by Gaurav Book Centre, India deals with role of media and diplomatic communication in spreading the idea of Arab Spring as a democratic revolution. As the author argues, ‘Diplomatically, the exercise of diplomatic communication reached its peak with the spread of news about Arab Spring...Diplomatically, if communication strategies were not put to utmost possible use, the hype about Arab Spring may never have really begun. Nor would there have been the need to question usage and imposition of the term Arab Spring. Ironically, the term Arab Spring was used even though greater part of the Arab world was not affected by the so-called revolutionary change towards democracy.’ (p. 13).

The volume is an outcome of Suhrawardy’s initial writings on Arab Spring as a journalist. She has viewed Arab Spring as a mirage from the beginning and has adopted communication-oriented approach to study paradoxical linkage of Arab Spring, and spread of terrorism. Author has raised issues like whether Arab Spring should be viewed as a democratic trap or a dependency trap. The volume analyses factors that initially augmented the belief of non-Arab part of the world about democratic aspects of Arab Spring and comparatively examines the diplomatic approach of major powers towards the Arab Spring states.

Divided into nine chapters, in addition to an ‘Introduction’ and ‘Conclusion’, the book touches upon the hype around Arab Spring as a democratic revolution and its final culmination as Arab Winter in relatively recent past. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, the two Chapters on ‘Term Arab Spring and Diplomatic Communication’ and ‘Arab Spring and Arab World’ interrogate the use of term ‘Arab Spring’ and the critical role of diplomacy and media in its circulation. The author further analyses whether Arab Spring as a term was used to persuade the Arab countries about democratic wave or was it guided towards the Western world.

In Chapter four entitled ‘Democratically Speaking’ and Chapter five on ‘Democratic Trap’ author opine on the genesis of revolution and argues that it is impossible for any revolution to proliferate within a span of few years. Further, democracy cannot be promulgated in any state by an external power. Suhrawardy also questions the stereotypical negative image of Arab world in the West. She writes, ‘Democracy in any part of the world cannot be imposed from outside by external forces. When external pressure or force is used to change regimes in the name of establishing democracy, in essence it is nothing but another form of neo-colonialism confirming its grip on that country’ (p. 29).

The next two chapters deal with the diplomatic issues in the Yemen crisis. Taking Yemen as the case study, the author has illustrated negative impact of Arab Spring. While elaborating on the growing global and regional role of diplomatic communications due to media and internet, the author blames complex nature of communications by external powers for exacerbating Yemen humanitarian crisis. Moreover, even in the context of negative impact of Yemen crisis on maritime security, only half-hearted efforts were made to prevent it from spilling over to the maritime area owing to diverse interests of key external powers.

The final three chapters in the volume are comparative in nature analysing US diplomacy towards Arab Spring and non-Arab states like Afghanistan, India-Pakistan relations (with respect to nuclear diplomacy) and the issue of terrorism. In this section, the author has used her previous articles written on the subject. India stands out as a resilient nuclear state. Suhrawardy opines. ‘Credit must be given to India for not allowing its nuclear policy to be subject to diplomatic whims and fancies of external powers. Though Pakistan has continued its nuclear drive, with respect to United States’ Afghanistan policy, it has been used like a pawn.’ (p. 11) In ‘Comparative Analysis: Terrorism’, Suhrawardy traces the history of Pakistan sponsored terrorism and the use of terrorism as a diplomatic tool and the role of media. In the concluding chapter, interestingly, instead of discussing Arab Spring and Arab Winter, the author asks to ponder on the question whether there ever was any Arab Spring or was it just a diplomatic farce or a shrewd strategy.

The author being a journalist, some parts of the book are written in a journalistic style. The volume is supplemented by a useful Bibliography and an Index at the end. The book makes interesting reading and is a relevant addition in the field of analysing contemporary inter-national relations. Although there is abundance of written material on Arab Spring, the diplomatic-communication oriented approach of the book under review adds to its value. It will be useful to journalists, and scholars and students of both international and diplomatic studies.

Dr Bharti Chhibber teaches Political Science in the University of Delhi. Her email is bharti.chhibber[at]

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